He furthered this success at Le Grand Véfour, which achieved a three Michelin star rating between 2000 to 2008 and holds two highly coveted stars today. He bought over the restaurant in 2011 and today heads four other distinguished restaurants across Paris and in the French Polynesia. To add to his already glittering repertoire, Chef Martin is also the acclaimed author of more than 20 cookbooks, and was decorated as an Officer of the Ordre de La Légion d'Honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honor) by the French Government in 2012 for his achievements.
What is it like working in the oldest and most famous restaurant in France?
Le Grand Véfour is the first restaurant for gastronomy in all of France, it opened after the revolution in the centre of Paris, near the Louvre Museum, in a beautiful area. I never think I am working when I’m in the restaurant, I feel like I’m in a painting and I am so happy. Everything around me in the restaurant is yellow and gold, just like in the paintings, and its all authentic. French painter Fragonard dined here, along with Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo; it was where Napoleon Bonaparte proposed to his wife Josephine.
Every day now, you have someone very known in the world - a pop star, a king, someone “wow” - dining here. But for me, every guest who comes in is a VIP, whether they are a king or a driver of the train, I treat them the same.
My approach to cuisine has always been very 'zen' - it’s about achieving pleasure and health.
You have to feel well in your head and body at the same time to love life, and I achieve this by using the best ingredients. All my ingredients I use are organic, and I work a lot with vegetables. To know all my products, I often go to the mountain and the sea to visit the people who produce the ingredients for me. I have a naturopath and a nutritionist that I have worked with for a long time, and I get them to look through my menus. But this is not to say we neglect taste and presentation; the first thing you see on the plate is also very important.
For me, rich flavours and healthy food are not in opposition. You can have a lot of pleasure even from food that is good for you. I try to put not too much cream or butter in my dishes, but butter is good for the heart, you know? It’s vitamin A - you need it.
I grew up among the mountains in the Savoie region of France, we lived 20 minutes from Mont Blanc in the French Alps. In the mountains, you ate whatever you could find in your area. After you went fishing, you ate the fish; if you picked mushrooms and herbs, that’s what you ate.
I grew up wanting to be an alpinist - a mountain guide or ski instructor - not a cook. I attended a school for mountaineers. I became a cook eventually, but I never forgot the mountain. Up in the mountains, you realise are nothing in the world; the mountain is very large and you are very small. Even when I travel in the world today and visit nice places and different restaurants, I never forget where I came from.
When I was 18, I read a lot of books on food and I said, why not I become a chef, and so I did. I started at the very bottom. When I started to cook it was for the money, I never aimed for this. I always thought of the present, that I may perhaps die tomorrow, so I never projected so far in life. I try to travel light, and because of this, I am happy every day. I appreciate each day and every second, because tomorrow, I may go. For me, in life, I love to do what I want to do; if I don’t want to do it, I won’t.
Today, I have three passions in life: my job, the mountain, and horses. Yes, horses. I do dressage, or training and taking care of horses. In fact, I was just helping a friend with his two younger horses before flying to Singapore. It helps me in the kitchen because it teaches you to be calm, and to be in control.
Because I believe that one should treasure the present moment, I try never to do something that I don’t feel right or proud about. I seek every day to find the best product and the best ingredient - I never you say ‘Ah, it’s just okay’. It’s either right or it’s not right. If it’s not right, I prefer to stop. I want to only create things that are beautiful - not for the money.
If you look at the websites of my restaurants, they are all in beautiful destinations. If I wanted to, I could open a lot of restaurants, but at the end of the day, I want the places that I have to go to to be nice. Each restaurant is very different but the philosophy is the same: to serve the best products in a nice place.
Before I got my first star, no one knew me, but the day I got it, it was very exciting. This was in 1985, but I still remember it like it was today. We had a fiesta. Paul Bocuse called, people sent flowers, we drank good wine, a magnum of Ruinart and some Moet and Chandon Imperial, and ate with friends. We took two days off. It was a great moment.
It’s really a plus to be in the Michelin Guide, but you should never forget your clients and what you want to do in life. You have to be true to yourself, what you do has to feel ‘right’, not just for the stars and the awards.
I always ask younger chefs: what do you want to do in life? Some chefs want to work for the President, some want to open a little auberge in the mountains, others want to go to Tokyo, Singapore or New York to work. You have to have a dream and then work for this dream, and make it possible. If you want to walk on the moon, you can. But you have to dream it first - it is really important to dream.
What's the best advice ever given to you?
It was the philosophy of the mountains, and that is to look. The mountain people are simple - reality is right in front of you when you grow up on the mountain. When you ascend a mountain, you go up slowly over five to six hours and in that time, you can observe every detail around you - you can look at the sun, feel the wind, see if the rain is coming, watch the pebbles tumble down. Every detail is very important and I appreciate each second because i know perhaps one day it will end. Often people say, I will be happy tomorrow, but why leave it to tomorrow? If you want to do something, do it now, and take pleasure in your life, because life is very short. Every second that is lost today, you won’t be able to get back tomorrow.